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Gun Registries Don’t Stop Suicide, Mental Health Services Do

[Note: This article has a trigger warning, for descriptions and discussion of suicide. Also, at the author's request, comments on this post have been turned off.]

A young woman goes to the mall, buys a gun, and shoots herself in the parking lot.

There are a lot of potential responses to this story; we could talk about suicidal ideation and how it works, about the failures of suicide prevention programs, about the rising rates of mental illness in young adults, particularly young women, in the United States. One in five Californians reports symptoms of mental illness in any given year and the same statistics can be seen in the rest of the country.

We could also talk about the false correlation between mental illness and violence, gun violence in particular, that dominated headlines this year after the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords.

What this young woman’s mother decided to talk about was the creation of a gun registry to deny gun purchases to people with a history of mental illness (story via Lisa Harney). As a person with a history of mental illness who owns guns, as a person who has lost friends to suicide by gun, this is a story that hit me much like a punch in the gut. Really? The response to suicide is ‘we should set up a registry to keep guns out of the hands of the crazies’? That’s what we’re going with?

There are a number of problems with this rationale. Starting with the fact that we don’t need to set up a mental illness gun registry, because there already is one. The National Instant Background Check System administered by the FBI ‘is all about saving lives and protecting people from harm—by not letting guns and explosives fall into the wrong hands.’ That includes people like convicted felons, individuals with a history of domestic violence, fugitives, ex-military with dishonourable discharges, and, of course, us crazies:

A person adjudicated mental defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution or incompetent to handle own affairs, including dispositions to criminal charges of found not guilty by reason of insanity[1. Footnote: For those who may not be aware, incidentally, being found not guilty by reason of insanity does not mean people 'walk free.' It means that they are institutionalised until the state sees fit to release them, often seeing out sentences in institutions far longer than those they would have served in prison.] or found incompetent to stand trial.

This is required under the Brady Act, passed in response to the attempted Reagan assassination in 1981. A number of states do not comply with the reporting requirement obliging them to file documents with the DOJ/FBI; Oklahoma cites patient confidentiality laws and New Mexico says it has no ‘statutory authority’ to submit these records, for example. But whatever your opinion on this registry and the implied assumption that mentally ill people are inherently dangerous, it theoretically provides a framework for what this grieving mother claims society needs.

Jill Frankenberry Connor says she wants ‘to prevent people with a history of mental illness from obtaining a so-called long gun by just walking into a store.’ That is a very vague and unclear mandate, a far cry from the specifics of the Brady Act, which apply to a very specific subset of the mentally ill population; ‘a history of mental illness’ could include anything from notes about teenage depression on a client’s file to a history of institutionalisation. The debate over gun rights and gun control is a separate issue, but this is a pretty clear-cut case of discrimination against people with mental illness. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for a crazy person to buy and own a long gun.

More importantly, preventing suicidal people from buying guns is not going to prevent them from committing suicide. This gets filed under ‘unpopular facts,’ because there it is. This isn’t to say that suicide prevention measures are, by and large, a failure, but guns are accessible even if you can’t buy them, as are many other means of committing suicide; if you fail the background check and you’re bound and determined, another solution will present itself. These kinds of measures are primarily aimed at easing the guilt of people who feel like they ‘should have noticed.’

Moreover, this ignores a rather critical point: In all the conversations about mental illness and gun violence, the focus is on how scary mentally ill people will promptly go out and start killing everyone if they have access to guns. When gun violence hits the news, when attempted assassinations start fanning the flames of speculation, the first response is, almost always, ‘I bet it was some psycho with a gun.’ Popular culture tells us that the equation of mentally ill+guns=bad because mentally ill people are all secretly gearing up for shooting sprees.

Yet, people with mental illness actually are victims of violent crime at a rate 11 times higher than that of the general population. Mentally ill people are more likely to end up in violent and abusive relationships, particularly women. Mentally ill people of all genders and nongenders are more likely to be sexually assaulted, to be beaten, to be raped in those institutions many people want to stick us in ‘for the good of society.’ We are less likely to be believed when we report all of these things. If we want to talk about addressing an epidemic of mental illness and violence, let’s start with where the epidemic actually lies, in violence against mentally ill people, particularly those with the most highly stigmatised mental health conditions, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder.

The claim is often made that society needs to be protected from people with mental illness when in fact, the situation is just the opposite; we need to be protected from society. In no small part thanks to attitudes about mental illness, again, particularly surrounding women. The pathologisation of women’s emotions and lives results in extreme danger for many women. The diagnostic disparities (what is post traumatic stress disorder in a man is borderline personality disorder in a woman) contribute directly to the stigma experienced by mentally ill women; not for nothing are women with emotions who aren’t afraid to voice them accused of having histrionic personality disorder. Not for nothing do young women with depression and suicidal ideation shoot themselves in mall parking lots instead of seeking help.

If you want to prevent suicide, start by providing mental health services to all members of the population for free or at low cost, and without stigma. Focus on outreach to women with symptoms of mental illness who  have been told to ‘suck it up’ and ‘deal with it,’ who are told that they’re simply being overemotional and irrational. And start combating the unacceptably high rates of sexual assault, abuse, and violence against people with mental illness.

s.e. smith is a disability rights activist and writer.